On October 19, 2014 the comet Siding Spring closely passed by the planet Mars. This was closest flyby ever recorded to either Earth or Mars and at its closest point was just 138, 000 km away from Mars’s surface. To put this into perspective this distance is around one third of the distance between the Earth and the Moon, and the gas and dust which was given off by the comet will have interacted with the Martian atmosphere.
Mars is being extensively studied by NASA at the moment with orbiting satellites in addition to two surface rovers and scientists were able to use this equipment to observe the comet on its path. The two surface rovers are able to give us a human perspective of the comet as they are looking up to the sky from the surface and are as light sensitive as our eyes.
The Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are part of NASA’s Mars Exploration campaign and are robots that have been performing geological investigations of different sites across the Martian surface for 10 years now. One piece of equipment in these robot geologists’ toolkit is the Panoramic Camera (Pancam) which usually takes pictures of the landscape across Mars. In addition this camera is capable of taking selfies and more recently has been tilted skywards in order to view the comet Siding Spring, as it passed by.
The comet Siding Spring is 700 m in size, and originates from the Oort Cloud bringing ‘fresh’ dust and gas from the outermost region of our solar system closer to us, giving us the chance to find out more about comets and the early solar system.